Succession at DHS up in the air as Trump set to nominate new head

Succession at DHS up in the air as Trump set to nominate new head
© Getty

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE is expected to announce a new Homeland Security secretary this week, amid chaotic turnover in the department's top ranks.

Trump wrote Friday that acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan would resign, adding that he "will be announcing the new Acting Secretary next week."

ADVERTISEMENT

McAleenan had been confirmed by the Senate as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner but had yet to be officially nominated to the secretary position.

Under department succession rules, the next in line for the job is David Pekoske, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, a Senate-confirmed official who has been performing the duties of deputy secretary under McAleenan.

But Trump is expected to announce a loyalist who'll focus on the department's immigration role.

At the front of the pack is Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency that oversees visas and naturalizations.

Other candidates rumored to be in consideration include acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan, former Kansas Gov. Kris Kobach (R), and former acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Thomas Homan.

The White House declined to comment for this story.

Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and former head of the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) PAC, is unlikely to get Senate confirmation if he's nominated to the job.

"I don't sense much enthusiasm for Mr. Cuccinelli's nomination," Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell, GOP leaders say they won't be watching House impeachment hearing GOP senators warn against Trump firing intelligence community official Falling investment revives attacks against Trump's tax cuts MORE (R-Texas) told The Hill.

During Cuccinelli's tenure at SCF, he oversaw donations to conservative primary candidates, including one who challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell protege emerges as Kentucky's next rising star Hillicon Valley: Schumer questions Army over use of TikTok | Federal court rules against random searches of travelers' phones | Groups push for election security funds in stopgap bill | Facebook's new payment feature | Disney+ launch hit by glitches McConnell, GOP leaders say they won't be watching House impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ky.) in 2014.

"He's not exactly unfamiliar to Senate Republicans, but we'll see what happens, what the president decides to do. Unfortunately, we're losing a good man — Mr. McAleenan — and that's too bad. It's going to be very hard to confirm a new Senate-confirmed DHS secretary, so that's a pretty important position to leave in the hands of an acting [secretary]," Cornyn also said.

Cuccinelli, who recognized SCF is "not one of [McConnell's] favorite organizations," minimized the drawbacks of performing in an acting capacity.

"I don't think it hurts at all, really," Cuccinelli told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Wednesday.

"What matters in the working arena really is work. And I mean, that sounds simple, but whether I'm in an acting capacity or not doesn't really affect that."

Cuccinelli said he hoped Senate Republicans would judge his work at USCIS on its merits and not when he was running SCF.

It's unclear whether Trump, who in February said he likes having Cabinet members in acting capacities, could even be compelled to formally nominate a DHS secretary.

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyBrindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Overnight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation MORE (D-Va.), head of the Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee, said Congress would have little power to overturn an appointment that didn't get sent to the Senate.

"Trump has demonstrated for all of us that our democratic form of government relies on norms being adhered to. The Constitution says the Senate is to give advice and consent for these nominations and treaties," said Connolly.

"We would have to pass laws to avoid the abuse we've witnessed in the Trump administration, which is all these actings," he added.

And turnover at the department is raising concerns that its core national security mission could be at risk.

When Trump announces a new DHS head, he will be on his fifth Homeland Security secretary in three years and the third seeking confirmation by the Senate.

McAleenan's departure comes after the agency's more than 200,000 employees hoped the former agent could bring stability to the department.

"We are pretty much numb and unaffected by the constant change of senior leaders at the department and agencies. The expectation is that everyone will be acting until they either retire or move on to a different department/agency," a veteran CBP official told The Hill.

"Those of us who have experienced multiple administrations are resilient. We know 'this too will pass.' We are resolute in our national security mission in spite of the absence of a confirmed Secretary of DHS and CBP Commissioner," added the official.

But as DHS's role becomes increasingly focused on immigration, some are concerned the national security aspects could fall by the wayside.

Connolly said the agency's primary purpose — to put national security agencies under the same roof in the wake of 9/11 — is difficult to manage and easily overtaken by the agency's politically charged immigration components.

"That's a real management challenge. And if you hire somebody who's an ideologue, and that's what he specializes in — Cuccinelli to wit — you're asking for trouble," said Connolly.

"What could go wrong with that somebody won't pay attention to that primary mission of the job," he added.

For Senate Republicans, the consequences of keeping an acting secretary wouldn't be as dire but could saddle a department in need of agile leadership.

"Who's going to be willing to make bold decisions knowing that you're acting and haven't been Senate confirmed? Who's going to make long-term plans? It's unfortunate," said Cornyn.

 
Al Weaver contributed to this story.